Olympic rower who stopped takes part in Australian parade, and gets a slap

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The Independent Online

They called her "Lay Down Sally". She was the epitome of everything reviled in sports-mad Australia, an athlete who would not give everything for her team-mates. The Rower Sally Robbins was pilloried in the media and in public opinion after she put down her oars and stopped rowing during her final at the Athens Olympics, costing her country the gold medal they expected as their due.

They called her "Lay Down Sally". She was the epitome of everything reviled in sports-mad Australia, an athlete who would not give everything for her team-mates. The Rower Sally Robbins was pilloried in the media and in public opinion after she put down her oars and stopped rowing during her final at the Athens Olympics, costing her country the gold medal they expected as their due.

So there were raised eyebrows when Robbins took part in a victory parade this week, to celebrate the Australian team's 49 medals; fourth on the table - not bad, even for a nation used to punching above its weight in the sporting stakes.

But nobody expected the tensions to explode the way they did hours later, when a team-mate, Catriona Oliver, publicly slapped Robbins at a post-parade dinner in Sydney.

Witnesses at the official dinner - held at the Sydney Superdome, one of the venues for the 2000 Olympics - say that Oliver hit Robbins hard across the upper arm, a slap which made guests at surrounding tables raise their heads and gaze on in horror. Robbins fled, in tears, to the lavatory pursued by Oliver, where - according to one Australian Olympic official - the pair had to be forcibly separated.

Both women were lying low yesterday, although Oliver issued an apology to Robbins and "all the other athletes at the function" through Rowing Australia, the sport's national association. She will face a hearing before a disciplinary committee in Melbourne on Wednesday, where she could be suspended or reprimanded and fined. There has been bad blood ever since the lost final. Robbins' team-mates threatened to throw her into the water after she collapsed 350 metres from the finish line and lay back in the boat. Back home, the newspapers called this un-Australian and her "Lay Down Sally". The race was won by Romania. Romania!

Fellow rowers excoriated Robbins in a series of public attacks and, at a press conference called in an attempt to present a picture of unity, the women could barely contain their anger. Oliver, trembling with fury, claimed that "we're not punching each other, we're not fighting with each other". Another team-mate, Kyeema Doyle, said that she would never row with Robbins again.

The criticism continued in the ensuing weeks, despite Rowing Australia ordering it to halt. Doyle lambasted Robbins in her local Sydney newspaper, The Manly Daily.

The women received counselling after their return to Australia, but this clearly failed to put paid to the tension between the women which erupted in spectacular fashion at the celebratory dinner, once a few drinks had been consumed.

According to witnesses, Oliver abruptly got up from a conversation with the men's rowing head coach, Noel Donaldson, walked up to Robbins and hit her. Athletes and officials looked on in astonishment as Robbins hurried to the lavatory. Mr Donaldson told The Australian newspaper that the incident was "disappointing and regrettable".

He said: "I can't comment on what may or may not have happened in the women's toilet, but what I witnessed was a fairly mild incident. By my reckoning, it was the culmination of a continuing concern among the group that made up the women's eight crew."

Katie Foulkes, coxswain of the women's eight, told The Sydney Morning Herald: "I've told all the girls to try and keep their emotions in a little bit more. I'm not sure what triggered [the confrontation], but I'm quite sure it wasn't Sally who started it."

Robbins, who has said she will not press charges against Oliver, is staying with her close friend, Jana Pittman, a 400m hurdler, who persuaded her to attend the dinner. She plans to take a year off rowing and study sports journalism in Perth.

Her coach, Antonio Maurogiovanni, said: "This has been very emotional for her, but she is a strong girl and I think she will continue [rowing]. It should have been handled better."

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